Check Your Libel

Two days ago, the internet went nuts over Apple’s alleged homophobic, capricious censorship of Saga #12, an adult-themed comic. As far as I can tell, the allegations originate in a statement from the comic’s co-creator, Brian K. Vaughan, in which he claimed that the issue had been banned specifically by Apple:

Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps.

The claim was taken by many at face value, and folks were understandably outraged by the implication that Apple was specifically rejecting the issue based on gay-themed content. It didn’t take long before the claim had been republished in zillions of tweets and on blogs ranging from casual fan sites to Comic Riffs, a blog residing under the banner of the Washington Post.

In short: it didn’t take long before everybody “knew” that Apple was a big, bad, homophobic, reckless censor of artistic content. Until yesterday, when the news came out that Apple had not, in fact, rejected the content in question:

It appears that Vaughan may have been jumping the gun in assigning blame. Apple confirmed to Macworld later on Wednesday that it did not block Saga #12, and Comixology CEO David Steinberger subsequently took responsibility in a post on the company’s blog.

It turned out that the content in question had never even been submitted to Apple. I’m guessing some kind of communication breakdown occurred between Comixology, the creators of the app, and Image Comics, the publishers of the comic. Amid this miscommunication, Brian K. Vaughan presumably leapt to the conclusion that Apple was at fault, and chaos ensued.

I myself have been guilty of jumping to conclusions about Apple. But when allegations like these take on a kind of collective confirmation, it’s unfairly damaging to the brand and, by extension to the reputations of the people who work for Apple. I am not an expert in legal matters, so I can’t say that it constitutes libel, per se, but it meets my everyday understanding of the term: a false written statement that damages a person or company’s reputation.

It’s extremely upsetting when a damaging claim turns out to have been false. We need to be outraged by this, or the whole system of fact-based accountability breaks down. As mad as you or I or anybody else may have been about the alleged misdeed by Apple, we should be at least as mad that we were misled to believe it was true.

To Brian K. Vaughan’s credit, he apologized publicly for the mistake, in a brief statement published by The Verge and also on Image Comics’s Tumblr:

I wanted to apologize to everyone for this entire Saga #12 kerfuffle. Yesterday, I was mistakenly led to believe that this issue was solely with Apple, but it’s now clear that it was only ever Comixology too conservatively interpreting Apple’s rules. I’m truly sorry. I never thought either company was being homophobic, only weirdly inconsistent about what kind of adult material was permissible.

It’s an apology, and that’s a start. But in my opinion it doesn’t meet the standard of a great apology. First, the “led to believe this issue was solely with Apple” leaves open the implication that some of the fault remains with Apple, when all evidence points to the fault being entirely in Comixology’s decision to not submit the issue. Second, the apology fails to acknowledge and specifically apologize to Apple for the damage his statement has done to them.

When any of us witnesses what we believe to be an injustice, it’s tempting to cry out loudly and forcefully. The web is a great tool for dissemination of information, but it’s just as good or better at spreading misinformation. In the old days, libel was something that, practically speaking, only an elite class of published writers risked committing. Most people didn’t publish written content for all the world to read. These days, any one of us could be on the verge of stating as fact something that is very damaging to a person or company, yet very false. Check your libel.